May 10, 2021
Activities for Developing Skills in Empathy
From the moment you saw your baby’s first smile, you’ve continued to see their emotional world grow every day. Now you can identify more of their feelings: you can tell when they are frustrated and when they are scared. You join them in their feelings of joy whenever they celebrate a new developmental milestone. And soon enough, your little learner will share in the feelings of others too.
Developing the ability to feel empathy for others is a normal part of emotional development. According to psychologist Paul Ekman, there are three main ways we can empathize with others: cognitive empathy, or the ability to understand the feelings of others; emotional empathy, or the ability to feel what others are feeling; and compassionate empathy, or understanding and feeling what others are feeling with the addition of feeling moved to help.
Your child’s empathy skills will guide them through their journey to making friends and getting along with others. And with your help, they will have the strong empathy foundations to express themselves in ways that are respectful of others.
Below are ten ways you can help nurture your child's empathy skills.
1. Be a role model
The best way to teach empathy is to show empathy for others. Your child pays attention to how you act and speak. Are you kind and respectful towards others? Also, don’t forget to show empathy for your little learner. If they are having a rough day or experiencing frustration, say “Are you feeling frustrated? I know it is frustrating to not be able to eat all the gummy worms you want. We will have a yummy dinner that is better than gummy worms.” Remember, love and affection help your little one thrive.
2. Talk about other people's feelings
Books can be a great way to explore what other people are like, and what others feel when they experience hardship. But sometimes those lessons come naturally in life when things happen to those around us. Having a developmentally appropriate conversation can be as simple as describing the feeling taking place. “Mom is sad because she lost her book” or “Grandpa is not feeling excited about going out because he is tired.” As your child learns to navigate social situations, you can say “Tony is crying because he is sad you took his toy. Let’s be gentle and ask if we can borrow it.”
Click here for great books about feeling grumpy compiled by the Brighter Reader Book Crew.
3. Read stories about feelings
Great stories do more than build word skills. They build feelings skills too. Knowing the right words to describe feelings can help your child understand themselves and others too. Here are some suggestions for some great reads about feelings:
4. Express self-awareness
Use words to describe your comfort or feelings about your interactions: “I like it when we hug. It makes me happy.” Or “I don’t like it when you kick me, it hurts.” Speaking about your own experiences shows your little learner their actions can have good and bad effects on others.
5. Think beyond saying the right words
Tony is crying because your little one took their toy. But asking your child to say “I’m sorry” will not soothe Tony or be helpful for your child in future interactions. Children learn the meaning of what “I’m sorry” means through learning about the feelings of others.
Raising Little Citizens of the World: Raising a socially connected child that understands the world around them.
6. Show examples through pretend play
Talk about feelings and empathy with toddlers when you play together. If Mr. Rat hits Puppy on the head, ask “How do you think Puppy feels?” or “Do you think Mr. Rat can be more gentle next time?” If you need ideas for more elaborate play and scenarios, borrow from characters and stories in books that deal with these topics. And remember: don’t be afraid to play along!
7. Be kind and patient
Little ones are still learning and they won’t get it right every time. In fact, there are many teenagers and adults that also struggle with practicing empathy and kindness. You are your child’s first and best teacher! Remember that challenging behaviors give you a chance to build connections and skills.
When toddler meltdowns happen:
- Let them know their feelings matter
- Help them calm down
- Share skills: “You seem very upset. Let’s take deep breaths together.”
- Know that every person raising children has been there at some point — it’s part of helping them grow up.
8. Get a family pet
Helping our furry family members meet their needs, like eating, drinking water or going outdoors, helps us think about their needs. And according to research, thinking about those needs comes with big lessons for little ones. Children can learn about responsibility, self-esteem, how to read emotions, and most importantly to express their own.
9. Talk about your own feelings
Describing your own feelings lets little learners know that everyone has feelings — including the adults in their lives. If you are having a hard day, express your feelings. Your ability to connect words with feelings can teach your little one to do the same, in addition to showing it is safe to have those conversations at home.
10. Provide healthy ways to express feelings
Exposure to the arts can have great benefits in the emotional lives of people big and small. According to research, artistic expression can help people work through difficult emotions, including trauma. Other benefits of art-making include building critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and communication skills. Additionally, art gives little ones a means to express any kind of feeling, which can increase a child’s sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.
Try these ideas:
- Process art activities you can do at home.
- Making thank you cards with kids.
- Creating books with your little learner.
Do you have your own tips for building empathy skills with little learners? Share in the comments.
- Ages & Stages: Empathy by Carla Poole, Susan A. Miller, Ed.D., Ellen Booth Church, Scholastic.
- How to Help Your Child Develop Empathy by Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian, Zero to Three.
- How Children Develop Empathy by Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D, PsychCentral.
- “Want to raise empathetic kids? Get them a dog” by Denise Daniels, Washington Post.